Kansas finds its missing link in forward Landen Lucas, who has waited patiently for his chance to start
Landen Lucas moved back to Japan in sixth grade, settling in to Fukui, a coastal town of about 267,000 inhabitants. This required some adjusting. He had lived in the country until he was three, while his father played basketball in Tokyo, but he had returned to Portland, Ore., for the next eight years. At that point his mother wanted her son to have one more experience living abroad. But while Landen still spoke the language—he'd attended a Japanese immersion school in Portland—he was nevertheless an awkward adolescent and his new school had some odd rules. For starters: It allowed fighting.
Not debating or arguing. Actual fighting. "They didn't want any built-up tension," Lucas says. Tussles transpired like hockey fights: As soon as someone went down, staffers stepped in to break it up. Lucas had never seen anything like it. He also swiftly realized an 11-year-old American's predispositions don't matter when set against a custom that had been in place longer than he'd be alive.
"They don't change with the times as much," Lucas says. "They stick with something and go with it."
The same can be said of Kansas, the top overall seed, which continues its NCAA tournament run against No. 5 seed Maryland on Thursday night in the South region, and of Lucas. The 6'10" junior endured a redshirt season and a conveyor belt of big men clogging his path to playing time for three-and-a-half years. The Jayhawks, meanwhile, stuck patiently with a player they recruited as a developmental piece, discovering this year he had grown into a much-needed frontcourt complement for star senior forward Perry Ellis. Lucas has started all but one game since Jan. 19—he was among three starters who stepped aside for less-used fourth-year players on Senior Day—and the Jayhawks have won 16 of those 17 games.
Lucas's numbers (5.5 points, 6.5 rebounds per game) aren't spectacular, but those too require some translation. Lucas's defensive rating (91.5) is the second-best of any Kansas player with at least 300 minutes. His total rebound percentage (21.0) leads the team. He was named All-Big 12 honorable mention by the league's coaches, and he piled up 22 points and 20 rebounds in two NCAA tournament wins in Des Moines.
"He's been our best low-post defender and our best rebounder on both ends and probably the smartest player we have," Jayhawks coach Bill Self says. "He's been there to anchor us on both ends. I think he's probably been as big of a reason why we have played better of late as anybody, just because the guys trust him and enjoy playing with him a lot."
Sometimes, he'd rather be golfing. Given the option of just watching college basketball or hitting the links, Lucas would rather play 18 holes. Or go bowling. Or maybe watch football, or poker. He's fascinated by the calculations made by competitors with deliberately empty stares.
"Poker is awesome," Lucas says, "because you can see how people think as they play."
When he must watch college basketball, he doesn't mind. Lucas is happy to be a responsible teammate studying film, because that is detective work, each game an educational exercise. He wants to learn how an opposing player is successful. Then he can imagine how to position himself against that.
His imagination is good: In overall single-coverage post-up defense scenarios—which account for 44.8% of Lucas's defensive possessions, per Synergy Sports—opponents have managed 0.615 points per possession, which puts Lucas in the 90 th percentile nationally. Offensive players shoot just 26.8% in these situations (11 of 41 from the floor). In essence, Lucas wants to see how people think as they play. And then he out-thinks them.
"He's smart enough to say, 'O.K., the guy wants to go over his left shoulder with a right hand jump hook; I'm not going to let him get to that shot,'" Kansas assistant coach Norm Roberts says. "He wants to back me down—well, I'm going to hold position and not let it happen. Out on the perimeter, he's going to try to lift me—I'm going to stay down. He's good at analyzing and taking things away."
After he arrived as a three-star recruit in 2012, Lucas's gestation period was long. But that may have provided him with an abundance of material for his defensive approach. He collided with the likes of Jayhawks big men Jeff Withey, Thomas Robinson, Tarik Black and Joel Embiid in practice. The strength of Robinson and Black, the skills of Embiid and Withey's impeccable shot-block timing have made him the player he is today. It helped his approach against Connecticut 7-footer Amida Brimah in the second round last weekend, and it will help him prepare for Maryland's fleet of frontcourt redwoods on Thursday.
"It's nothing new," Lucas says. "A guy like Jeff, my freshman year here, is going to help me for something now four years later against a guy who is also a great shot-blocker. It's cool to see those experiences pay off."
As Kansas reserve big man Hunter Mickelson puts it, the 240-pound Lucas uses his physicality to dictate terms to the opposition. This, in addition to his assertiveness on the glass, makes him the ideal and necessary complement to Ellis, the Jayhawks' 6'9" leading scorer. Ellis's defensive rating (99.6) is not disastrous, but it's seventh among Jayhawks with more than 300 minutes played. His total rebound percentage (11.2) trails every big man on the roster.
The question of who best complements Ellis dates at least to last year, when 6'8" five-star freshman Cliff Alexander was supposed to be the answer. Alexander never became the reliably ornery force Kansas expected while injuries and NCAA eligibility issues derailed his season. And this January, after the Jayhawks lost two of three games, Self reportedly convened a meeting to ask his four regular starters—Ellis and guards Wayne Selden, Frank Mason and Devonte' Graham—who should occupy that fifth spot. Their recommendation was Lucas.
Their foresight was commendable. "He makes Perry Ellis better," Roberts says of Lucas. "Because of his strength of rebounding and strength of defense. Those are probably two things that are not huge strengths for Perry. He gives us those things and allows Perry to have more freedom offensively."
As expected, the reserved Ellis isn't too revealing about his starting partner's effect—"We just feel so comfortable playing with each other," he says—but it's easy to see how the outspoken yet easygoing Lucas is a perfect fit a long time coming. "One, we like each other, so that helps," Lucas says. "I want him to succeed and I'm sure he wants the same thing for me. And we talk a lot. He's not a very talkative person, but I'm able to talk to him, see what he likes, what he doesn't like, how he can score better."
He's just trying to think ahead, after all.
It may be odd that the son of a basketball player—Richard Lucas played at Oregon from 1987 to '91—wouldn't live and breathe the game. "He has his own little world at times," Kansas freshman Carlton Bragg says with a smile. And Lucas acknowledges that he likes to spend his days differently than most of his teammates. But there's something about him that is recognizable and relatable to everyone.
Many college players would struggle to stand in the back of the line for so long. Many won't even suffer the middle of the line for more than a moment. And if they don't get what they want, they're gone. Yet here is Lucas, nearly four years into his time at Kansas, just now finding his place. That takes stubbornness. That requires a conscious decision to go against the trend and to permit yourself to fight a little.
"Really, it's a good feeling, just because you know in order to do it, you had to go through the best," Lucas says. "It's not like you're just going to a team where it's given to you. That's why I came here. Because I wanted to play for the best and not leave any doubts in my mind, like, 'Could I have done it here?'"
He's a starter for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. His coach says he's the reason Kansas is on its current trajectory. At the beginning of this year, Landen Lucas wasn't anyone's idea of a stout defender, prolific rebounder and missing link on a potential title team. It's no longer a foreign concept.